OCEAN CITY – In what could be another change borne out of the pandemic that might remain permanent, resort officials this week agreed to extend the outdoor dining permit program implemented last year for local businesses.
Last year in the midst of the pandemic, the Mayor and Council implemented a permit process allowing local hospitality businesses to utilize outdoor space for dining. The program was instituted at the height of state restrictions on indoor dining and dozens of local businesses took advantage of it. Ocean City food service establishments generally fell into one of three categories in terms of outdoor seating.
Naturally, those with existing dining areas were immediately allowed to utilize those areas when Gov. Larry Hogan announced the first phase of the state’s recovery plan. The second category included those that did not have existing outdoor dining, but had opportunities on their own private property to create areas for outdoor seating. The third included those businesses desiring to use a portion of the public right-of-way, such as sidewalks and street areas, for example.
The Mayor and Council, in partnership with the county health department, the local liquor board and the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office, implemented a flexible plan to allow the latter to utilize areas in the public right-of-way for outdoor seating, as long as other COVID restrictions, such as masks and table-distancing, were observed. In some cases, restaurants added a few tables on the public sidewalk adjacent to the business. In other cases, it involved putting picnic tables in the roadway adjacent to a business on a temporary basis.
Roughly a year later, many of the restrictions regarding restaurants and bars have now been eased, but others, including table distancing, for example, remain in place.
With the season approaching, the Mayor and Council had before them this week a request to extend the outdoor dining permit program through the end of 2021, or until such time as all restrictions on restaurants and bars have been lifted.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville explained those with permit approvals from 2020 have been automatically renewed, while his office has had some applications for outdoor seating in the public right-of-way submitted for approval. He also said there have been some requests to make the outdoor seating accommodations permanent.
“We’ve had a lot of folks who have applied for making their outdoor seating areas permanent,” he said. “We’re working through that process now.”
Neville said the council in January approved extending the outdoor dining permit program through the end of 2021. However, some of the governor’s restrictions on restaurants and bars have since changed. For example, in mid-March, the 50% capacity rule was lifted, however, social distancing and table-spacing rules remain in place, resulting in most restaurants being unable to seat to their stated capacity maximum. For that reason, some of the language in the permit application needed to be changed.
“Everyone is optimistic for the program this year, but some of the language needs to be clarified,” he said. “When we looked at this in January, many of the governor’s restrictions were still in place. We need to update the application form.”
Neville said his staff would handle most of the requests, but anything new or significantly different would come before the Mayor and Council.
“We can keep the renewals at the staff level if you’re comfortable with that,” he said. “Any new requests would come back before you.”